“Thou know’st the first time we smell the air we wawl and cry.”
Shakespeare was right, of course. We come head-first into the world and, drawing our first breath in it, seem to intuit life’s pre-eminent lesson: we are entitled to precisely nothing — not food, not water, not toilet paper, and certainly not surgical masks and ventilators. And so it is that in our first few moments in the arena we give a great angry cry in protest — until someone sticks a tit in our mouths.
Which is a thing that doesn’t seem to change no matter how old we get.
The great success of western civilization in creating and sustaining comforts and freedoms has led us, perhaps, to believe we are entitled to them by virtue of some great beneficent dispensation of the cosmos. But we aren’t, and never have been, and as this pandemic flares and rages around the planet, taking lives and livelihoods with it, many are relearning – or discovering for the first time — the fundamental fragility of that assumption.
The pandemic-inspired awareness that we aren’t actually entitled to a damn thing — and that’s the only thing being “woke” can actually mean without irony — clashes fiercely with what we’ve been teaching generations of young people: that we are entitled to health and happiness, and if we just eat smoothies and talk nicer and recycle plastics we might even live forever.
The American mind in particular, it seems, has been trained to believe that we can somehow fight existential battles without casualties. That would have been news to General Grant, when he tucked in for dinner among the smoking ruins of Vicksburg. And here’s another flash: the kind of entitlement mindset we’ve been doubling-down on creates dependency, not resiliency, and that’s really bad news for all of us.
I had a civics teacher in high school, Walt Adams, who once told our class that he did not believe in abortions unless they were post-natal. He thought we should give people about 16 years and then decide whether or not to whack them. He didn’t mention a preferred method but he managed to wedge that commentary in between lessons on the role of the Federal Reserve and a glowing assessment of G. Gordon Liddy’s general comportment.
Walt was also my wrestling coach and wore the magic Mormon underwear so it was hard to take him very seriously. Once, when I was losing a match I should have been winning — by a lot — he threw up his hands and thundered in exasperation: “You’re rolling over like a tired whore!” which more or less silenced the gym.
It’s amazing what you can hear out on the mat in the middle of a match, what with the heavy breathing and the auditory exclusion that comes from the body’s belief it is engaged in mortal combat, but I heard Walt clearly and was inspired enough by the comment to eventually win. When I walked off the mat he just threw me a laconic smile and marched away to coach some other wrestler off the broad path to avoidable defeat.
When sea turtles hatch they know only one thing: get off the beach. 1 in 1000 survives even a year.
One of the great recent hubbubs has been the notion of “Dying for the Dow,” or what has been dubbed “The Deathwish Economy.” This freak-out, and there have been many of a similar strain, was sparked by Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who is probably an asshole and managed — and clearly this wasn’t advisable — to tell some television pundit: “I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed… we can’t lose our whole country … let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living.”
Patrick was suggesting that seniors would be willing to die in human waves on the hilltops of Covid-19 to resurrect a virus-bund economy. This comment sparked a furious overreaction from nervous people across America who still take their politicians far too seriously. I suppose that’s understandable if we remember they once handed out infected blankets to natives. The comment was clearly and utterly stupid, and reminded me instantly of Lt. Henry Harrick — who had previously announced his intention to bring home the Medal of Honor — and with glory in his eyes led his platoon to unnecessary death and disaster in the opening moments of the fight for the Ia Drang Valley.
At any rate, after Patrick was done terrifying old people “Triage” memes suddenly flooded the internet and aging Baby Boomers — what one of my friends has called “The Lamest Generation” — began clutching their virtue pearls as if some twitchy National Guardsman was going to prise them out of their houses — away from their carefully hoarded mountains of toilet paper and Spam — to float the Dow-Jones on a raft of their dead and infected bodies.
I’m trying to model my present behavior on the Stonefish, which is the most venomous fish in the world. If you happen to step on one the pain, swelling, spasms, and paralysis are apparently so excruciating that they create delirium and occasionally unconsciousness. This has caused some people to drown. On a brighter note if they don’t kill you outright the symptoms can persist for months. I’ve been pushing for Badger Theory elsewhere but in a pandemic I’m going full Stonefish. I’m tucked into the reef here, covered with some sand, just watching the other fish swim by.
Reactions to this pandemic have been all over the map, and generally uninspiring, but also instructive for those of us who believe another such offering is probably just a few years down the road. One must embrace the notion that right now some kid in a Wuhan Province wet market is deciding whether or not he wants to snack on a marmot’s sautéed butthole.
At any rate, not long ago I passed on a golden chance to secure six months of Mountain House freeze dried meals at a considerable discount, which was a mistake I won’t repeat.
One interesting note in the general symphonic calamity has been the fortissimo swell of Trump derangement. It’s astonishing to see so many otherwise intelligent people let this clown live rent free in their heads. I get it, they want somebody to blame, and they still believe the US government is meant to be their friend, but it gets tiresome. There are some, far too many, who long ago invited Trump into their house and are now surprised to find he is drinking all the beer, kicking their dog, and humping their wife while they sit tied to a chair with extension cords.
And anyway, if there is a God who manages our various absurdities, Joe Biden will ascend to the throne come November — if only because momentum and the weight of history seem to demand that we elect a man with obvious dementia.
I once served on a security detail for Uncle Joe. This was years ago, before his gears started publicly slipping. He landed in Santa Barbara and raced down the 101 into Montecito where he spent about an hour passing a velvet hat amongst the various Harvey Weinstein types who lived there. This was before the mudslide which carried some of those fine Spanish Colonials across the railroad tracks and into the sea.
While Joe was inside regaling the rapt with a breathless retelling of his battles with Corn Pop, I sat outside sweating in an armored vehicle with my compadres, fondling a three thousand dollar rifle and waiting for terrorists or nutjobs to jump out of the iceplant. That never happened — which was disappointing — but as quickly as he had landed he was off again, his pockets stuffed full of checks, jetting into a beautiful blue sky over San Marcos Pass where the hide wagons once trundled in from Rancho San Fernando Rey. The Californios would carry the hides down to the beach and load them in the holds of the ships until they were full, and then stand by as the ships weighed anchor and sailed away — back ’round the Horn to the east coast where the rights of sailors were few and the leather was made into belts and shoes.
Two hundred years after the hide ships patrolled that part of the coast, my partners and I sat on a hill covered in licorice plant, watching Uncle Joe fly back to his grind on a government jet. We didn’t say much about any of it. But we did stay there for a while, padding our own checks where the air was fumed with the smell of eucalyptus trees, and of the crude oil that seeps up from cracks in the channel floor — leaving a rainbow sheen, here and there, on the ancient waters.